Volume > Issue > Briefly: May 1994

May 1994

Death Foretold: The Jesuit Mur­ders in El Salvador

By Martha Doggett

Publisher: Georgetown University Press

Pages: 358

Price: $19.95

Review Author: Paul Friedman

In an article published in mid-1989, Fr. Ignacio Martin-Baro speculated about what would hap­pen if he were to be murdered: The authorities would propagate an “of­ficial story” consisting of half-truths and outright falsifications concerning their involvement, while the facts that would emerge would be “cordoned off” and dis­credited by officials and the press.

Six months following this prediction, Fr. Martin-Baro was murdered along with five of his fellow Jesuits, plus their cook and her daughter. Since the university campus where the victims resided was surrounded at the time by the army, the fact that the govern­ments of El Salvador and the U.S. could continue for weeks to claim that the leftist guerrillas were to blame reveals that the establish­ment of an “official story” did in­deed occur, as Fr. Martin-Baro foretold. What the slain Jesuit would not know was what kind of an impact the deaths would have, and that, for perhaps the first time in decades of civilian slaughter in El Salvador, the “official story” would be exposed and high gov­ernment officials implicated in covering up the massacre. How­ever, it would not be Salvadoran, but rather international agents (a U.S. advisor, Congressman Moakley’s Task Force on Central America, and the U.N. Truth Commission), who would un­cover vital information leading to the exposure.

Death Foretold chronicles the entire story of the events lead­ing up to the crime, and what is known about the perpetrators and their trial. The greater part of the book addresses the judicial sys­tem in El Salvador and the man­ner in which the defendants were brought to trial, revealing step by step how a military government can effectively commit crimes and not face judgment.

The participation of the U.S. government in the cover-up is also documented. At crucial points in the early stages of the investiga­tion, U.S. officials attempted to discredit the testimony of two wit­nesses, one, a housekeeper who saw military men at the scene, and a U.S. Psy Ops advisor who had knowledge that one of the partici­pating officers had confessed to the special unit supposedly inves­tigating the crime. Particularly shameful was the pressuring of the housekeeper to change her story. Though the book does not assess any moral judgment or even sug­gest a rationale, it would be diffi­cult to put a good spin on such behavior.

The trial would result in the acquittal of the alleged triggermen and the conviction of two of the commanding officers, though those who conceived the crime are not and may never be known. Le­gal experts would class the pro­ceedings a “showcase” trial, per­formed for the sake of the interna­tional media so foreign aid would not be threatened. The sacrificial lambs offered to the court would be freed a short time later, follow­ing a general amnesty pushed through by the right-wing ARENA party.

The U.S. may not get off so cheap. While it should come as no surprise to a people who cannot summon up any horror at their current abortion rate that their politicians would countenance bar­barity in a foreign land, it neverthe­less seems to me that our govern­ment crossed a line when it ac­tively engaged in preventing mass murderers from being brought to justice. Outrage from all sides should attend the publication of this report and pressure the ones responsible into an accounting.

Peace or Armageddon? The Un­folding of the Middle East Peace Accord

By Dan O'Neill and Don Wagner

Publisher: Zondervan

Pages: 111

Price: No price given

Review Author: David Denton

Few things seem more inevi­table and hopeless than strife and confusion in the Middle East. But much of the confusion for us in the West is, arguably, enhanced by television, whose news “coverage” is little more than images of fren­zied, hate-filled faces, or faces in agony and mourning, all framed by uniforms, hi-tech weaponry, and blood and smoke. Semitic names of persons and places are intoned while these horrific scenes frenetically lurch across the screens. We slump back after this visual mugging and assume we are now well informed on the Middle East. Well informed? Let’s see. What does Hezbollah mean? Are we familiar with the circum­stances of the establishment of the state of Israel? Ever heard of Al Nakhbah?

Dan O’Neill, a Catholic, and Don Wagner, an evangelical Prot­estant, feel it is essential to be conversant with such information to begin to understand what has been happening in the Middle East both before and since the signing of the Peace Accord by the PLO and Is­rael. And it is just this kind of infor­mation that is rarely provided in television or newspaper accounts. (Hezbollah means “Party of God” — the group of that name has been violently resisting Israeli oc­cupation of southern Lebanon. The modern state of Israel was es­tablished in 1948 by the U.N. through an imposed partitioning of Palestine bitterly rejected by the Palestinian majority. Al Nakhbah is “the disaster,” the expulsion of 760,000 Palestinians from their homelands by Israel, and the be­ginning of the Palestinian refugee problem.)

O’Neill and Wagner have put together, in the wake of the Peace Accord, a small but valuable primer and chronology. The au­thors concentrate on the literally stranger-than-fiction events im­mediately leading up to the sign­ing of the Accord. They also tell why the Accord is so bitterly op­posed by certain Palestinian and Israeli groups. We are also given an overview of 20th-century Middle Eastern and Palestinian history. And lo, much of the confusion sur­rounding this mystically central arena begins to fall away.

But at what price? It does not take long to see that by writing this book, O’Neill and Wagner risk harsh criticism from groups with deep interests and commitments in the Middle East. For while expressing an unchallengeable love and sympathy for the Jewish people not only as the Chosen People of the Scriptures but as the People of the Holocaust, and largely accepting the scriptural prophecies and claims pertaining to the Jews, O’Neill and Wagner know the Palestinian people also to be children of Abraham. And the authors are committed to having us know that all too often the Pal­estinians have been “the victims of the victims of the Holocaust.”

Facts of striking importance are thrust upon us by the authors. First, are we aware that a sizable proportion of the Palestinians are Christian? Moreover, do we know that the U.S. evangelical Protes­tant community and its leader­ship, often in the grip of a dispensationalist theology, have thrown tremendous political support to Israel, ignoring, or in ignorance of, the plight and claims of Palestinian Christians and Muslims? Many Palestinian Christians have ancestors who have been in Palestine since Pentecost, and many are evangelicals: They have seen their historic homelands mandated away by a body of other nations, and themselves forcibly expelled from their homes and holdings by Israel. Palestinian Christians have difficulty understanding why their American brothers and sisters not only ignore but contribute to their plight.

This little book performs a service all out of proportion to its size.

Making Men Moral: Civil Liber­ties and Public Morality

By Rob­ert P. George

Publisher: Oxford University Press

Pages: 241

Price: $42

Review Author: Gerard V. Bradley

In 1957 a blue ribbon com­mission headed by Sir John Wolfenden recommended to the British Parliament that it decrimi­nalize private homosexual behavior between consenting adults. The “Wolfenden Report” ignited the most celebrated jurisprudential de­bate of the 20th century, a series of scholarly exchanges between H.L.A. Hart and Patrick Devlin. The Report’s specific proposal was less incendiary than its (eminently por­table) reasoning: “it is not the duty of the law to concern itself with im­morality as such.”

Devlin attacked the commission’s central claim, that “there can be no theoretical limits to legislation against immorality.” His conservative criticism did not, however, suppose that sound mor­als laws should enforce only true moral obligations. Devlin defended the view that morals laws are legitimate means of preserving co­hesion around whatever happens to be the core morality of a society. Devlin’s position would allow “gay marriage” in Manhattan, but not in Peoria.

The Report’s libertarian logic quickly became the linchpin of liberal political morality. As Jus­tice Brennan put it, ours is a purely “facilitative” society in which the truth about genuine human flourishing is, as far as public authority goes, a matter of private opinion. Absent “harm” to non-consenting third parties, legal interference with a person’s choices — even self-destructive ones — is in principle unjust.

Robert George’s brilliant new book rescues the topic of le­gal enforcement of moral obliga­tions from both liberals and con­servatives. Against Devlin he maintains that “the genuine im­morality” of an act is a necessary (but not alone sufficient) condi­tion for the legitimacy of a morals law. Against the liberals he main­tains that no principle of justice precludes morals legislation as such. George persuasively argues that morals laws — prohibitions of so-called victimless immorali­ties such as sodomy, prostitution, drug use, suicide — may be en­acted. Whether those entrusted with legislative authority should pass this or that law depends upon a host of contingent pru­dential considerations.

Though George consistently and explicitly affirms the necessity of true moral judgments to sound morals laws, the validity of Making Men Moral does not depend upon the validity of George’s views of, say, homosexual acts. According to George, the morality of “victim­less immoralities” is susceptible to a true answer in a way relevant to public authority. Moral judgments must be objective in some impor­tant sense. To make his criticisms of Devlin stick, George contends that objectivity is not merely social agreement. Moral stances are not entirely relative to a culture. George writes as a natural law theorist, and acknowledges a “massive intellectual debt” to Germain Grisez’s work in funda­mental moral theory. George’s po­sition is linked to the central tradi­tion of preliberal political morality anchored by Aristotle and Aquinas.

Significantly, George estab­lishes a firm natural law basis for familiar civil liberties such as freedom of speech, religion, press, assem­bly. Here we see the profound, de­cisive rebuttal to those who would say that George’s position leads to the elimination of freedom.

Black Dogs

By Ian McEwan

Publisher: Nan A. Talese

Pages: 149

Price: $19.95

Review Author: Nick J. Bagileo

Black Dogs is one of those novels that from the first sentence you know you won’t be able to put down. It begins, “Ever since I lost mine in a road accident when I was eight, I have had my eye on other people’s parents.” These words are spoken by Jeremy, a main character. The story is a memoir of Jeremy’s mother-in-law, June, who had a spiritual conversion during a terrifying ex­perience with two black dogs in France. The book is also an autobiography of Jeremy’s spiri­tual life.

June and husband Bernard were rationalists who believed in the “benign revolution” of communism. After her spiritual conversion, June sees Bernard in a new light. She realizes he claimed to “love” creation but really only wanted “to control it, choke the life out of it….” Bernard wanted “a society as neat as a barracks, justi­fied by scientific theories.” June tells her entomologist husband, “You don’t even like working-class people! You never speak to them. You don’t know what they’re like. You loathe them. You just want them arranged in neat rows like your bloody insects.”

June’s experience with the black dogs happened on a walk through the Dolmen de la Prunarede. (A “dolmen” is an an­cient burial site made of several lay­ers of stone, usually regarded as a tomb. Although Christ’s tomb is never mentioned, June’s finding a new life is clearly related to Christ’s empty tomb.) June came out of the dolmen a transformed person. June knew she could not fight off the dogs by herself. As a last resort she pleaded, “Please, oh God!” This last gasp prayer is answered, not in the fact that the dogs magically disap­pear, but because June experiences a relationship with God.

Churchill called his bouts with depression “the black dog.” June said if one black dog is a per­sonal depression, two dogs are “a kind of cultural depression, civilization’s worst moods.” The black dogs she encountered were trained by the Nazis, and are signs of the evil that man brings about. Jeremy comes to understand that there is moral evil in the world when he reflects on visits to the Berlin Wall and a Nazi death camp, and remembers June saying, “the evil I’m talking about lives in all of us. It takes hold in an individual, in private lives, within a family, and then it’s children who suffer most. And then, when the conditions are right, in different countries, at dif­ferent times, a terrible cruelty, a vi­ciousness against life erupts, and everyone is surprised by the depth of hatred within himself. Then it sinks back and waits. It’s some­thing in our hearts.”

Jeremy’s experiences are open either to June’s or Bernard’s interpretation of life. By reflecting on his life, Jeremy comes to realize that June is right that love over­comes and heals evil. Jeremy finds that love in his relationship with his wife and children.

At the end of the narrative, Jeremy is thinking of June’s black dogs and prophetically knows that these evil incarnations “move into the foothills of the mountains from where they will return to haunt us, somewhere in Europe, in another time.” Indeed. The fall of the Berlin Wall was cause for much prema­ture celebration, as if once communism fell, evil would disap­pear. But now the black dogs have been roving the hills of Yugoslavia.

Against the Heresies (Book 1)

By Irenaeus of Lyons. Translated and Annotated by Dominic J. Unger

Publisher: Paulist

Pages: 300

Price: No price given

Review Author: Herbert J. Ryan

Few Christians are aware of the intense pastoral and intellec­tual struggle the Christian move­ment waged in the latter half of the second century to restrain Chris­tians from falling under the influ­ence of Gnosticism, which claimed it had secret knowledge answering all the ultimate ques­tions in life. It despised material things and maintained that the physical world came from a lesser deity than the one who made spiri­tual, intangible reality. Greek-speaking urban Christians began to mix elements of Gnosticism with Christianity, which caused the Christian movement to face its first major doctrinal crisis.

The Christian movement overcame the Gnostic crisis and emerged from this titanic struggle with a clearer sense of its own identity, an increased awareness of its historical foundation, and a new organizational structure. Creeds articulated Christian doc­trine, the canon of Scripture pub­licly rooted Christianity in Juda­ism and the Apostles’ unique proc­lamation of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, and bishops exer­cised teaching authority to resolve doctrinal or disciplinary disputes among Christians. In short, the Catholic tradition takes its rise in the Christian movement’s reply to the Gnostic challenge in the late second century. The person most responsible for framing the reply and thus shaping the development of the Catholic tradition is St. Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons. The two books reviewed here will be very helpful to those trying to un­derstand the roots and meaning of the Catholic tradition.

The announcement by the editors of Ancient Christian Writ­ers, the prestigious American se­ries of translations of the writings of the Church Fathers, that their series would produce an accurate and complete English translation of Irenaeus’s Against the Heresies elated persons in the English-speaking world who grasped the importance and need of such an undertaking. The current work by Unger and Dillon amply fulfills all expectations, and the translation is limpid English. One hopes that the remaining four books of Irenaeus’s work will soon appear in the series.

Church historians are unani­mous in declaring Against the Her­esies a masterpiece. But why is it a masterpiece and its author so es­teemed? Kelly’s Concise Dictio­nary of Early Christianity displays theological insight and sound judgment, and quoting from Kelly’s treatment of Against the Heresies will both help answer the question and exemplify the high quality and usefulness of his dictio­nary: “Irenaeus attacks the Gnostics, but in a new and effective way. Realizing that the Gnostics based much [of their thinking] on their claims of secret traditions reaching back to the apostles, Irenaeus turned this approach on its head, insisting that he could trace what he taught back to the apostles and could prove it because his teachings had public verifica­tion, that is, they could be found in Scripture…and apostolic succes­sion, that is, a succession of bish­ops who could be traced back to the apostolic age. He himself had been taught by Polycarp, who, he claimed, had been taught by John (presumably he meant John of the Twelve), and thus Irenaeus under­stood apostolic succession as something organic, a living link to the first age of the Church. Thus, what had been the Gnostic strong point, the secret traditions, now became its weak point. This theo­logical method, commonly called ‘Scripture and Tradition,’ became the standard approach for all other early Christian theologians…. The modem discovery of Gnostic lit­erature has in general upheld Irenaeus’ descriptions of the be­liefs of the Gnostic sectaries.”

Irenaeus’s theology is not merely of historical value. Con­temporary Christians can find in it a treasure trove to help them in­vestigate current issues in a way that is consonant with the Chris­tian tradition.

The Concise Dictionary of Early Christianity

By Joseph F. Kelly

Publisher: Liturgical Press

Pages: 203

Price: $24.95

Review Author: Dale Vree

One doesn’t think of encyclo­pedias as being passionate, but this one is. While it’s loaded with facts, charts, footnotes, and such, it’s quite a page turner.

To be sure, there’s probably more material here than most prolifers could ever use, but if you need to track down information on a particular aspect of the abor­tion issue, this reference tool will prove very handy. Do you want the names, addresses, and phone numbers of prolife organizations and publishers? Do you need pointers for winning a debate? Do you want to understand the Catholic position? Are you curious about the parallels between abor­tion and the Holocaust or slavery? Do you want to know what Planned Parenthood has been up to? You’ll find all that and much more here.

Yes, there are distractions. For example, the author feels the need to attack the Seamless Gar­ment approach to combating abortion, and at this late date is still agitated by the communist peril, but these are minor blem­ishes on a massive work of im­mense value to the prolife move­ment.

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